Having wrapped up our Navigator of The Seas, we have now sailed with each of the three massive lines focused on the American mass-market; Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean.
The big question for us is “are these three lines interchangeable, or is there a noticeable difference in product quality amongst them?”.
As far as we’re concerned, there are, indeed, differences and there is a clear best choice, so, let’s rank them, starting at the bottom…
Third Place - Norwegian Cruise Line. As compared to its two primary competitors, NCL offers a less homogeneous hard product, with a fleet which remains something of a hodgepoge. In our experience, we found that, not only was the ship crowded, but the cabins were cramped and there were few appealing public spaces. Food was disappointing and the bar offering didn’t really cater to people who enjoy decent wines or spirits.
Second Place - Royal Caribbean. If our reviews were based simply on the number of bells and whistles attached to the ships, RCCL would win hands down, they offer a modern fleet which is continuously renewed with vessels which set new records for capacity and variety of facilities. In contrast to NCL, we found plenty of places to sit in peace and quiet, despite the vast number of fellow passengers. Like NCL, food was nothing to write home about, but there were at least wine bars and cocktail venues catering to grown ups.
First Place - Carnival. In our experience, Carnival is in a different league from it’s principle competition. Yes, some of the ships, including Triumph, are older, but ongoing improvement projects keep them relevant. While there are noisy kids arcades and clubs, there was also appealing bars and quiet lounges. The staff on Carnival were friendly, attentive and enthusiastic - really contributing to a great atmosphere in places, notably the pool bars and casino. Food, perhaps because it has no pretension to being haute cuisine, is far superior to that offered on RCCL or NCL - the sea day brunch is particularly good.
The downside to Carnival is that, unlike both NCL and RCCL, they offer very infrequent cruises in Europe and almost never anything sailing from the UK. That being said, if we were already in the US for work or another holiday, we wouldn’t hesitate to add a short Carnival sailing on to the end of the trip.
Now that we’ve got a fair few sailings under our belt, we thought it was time to start casting some (more) judgement. First off - Battle of The Brits.
Having cruised with P&O, CMV and Fred Olsen, we’ve pretty much sailed on all the popular lines aimed at the British Market. We haven’t sampled Marella (formerly Thomson Cruises) yet, maybe someday. Maybe not.
We’re not including Cunard in this, given that the onboard currency is the US dollar, or any of the boutique lines sailing the in the Highlands and Islands.
So, of the three, which would we suggest? I think it’s clear that, in an ideal world, we wouldn’t choose any of them for our holiday, but, on balance, P&O wins.
Firstly, if travelling with children, do not even consider CMV or Fred Olsen. It’s not an option on many of their sailings, but they do offer “multi-generational” voyages during the school holidays; your children will be bored to tears and will make wretched every dull day. Most of P&O’s ships (some are adult only) do cater well to kids, particularly the latest ones.
Many people seem to favour CMV and Fred Olsen because of the smaller ships - professing fear at the prospect of a boat “crowded” with thousands of people. In practice, we found public space at far more of a premium on those smaller ships that we did with P&O. Of course, this may be because people are happier to remain in their cabins on the newer P&O ships, which offer a large number of balconies - something reserved for only the highest cabin grades on the older vessels of Fred Olsen and CMV.
One of our reasons for choosing P&O may be slightly contentious, but we value the wider range of opportunities to pay extra for food. We know that the all-inclusive aspect of cruising is important to many and the main dining room food on P&O is, possibly, the worst of the three. However, the extra-cost restaurants on P&O were good, particularly the Indian. And, while it may be a bit better than P&O, I wouldn’t want to eat Fred Olsen’s included food every day for a week.
What might make you choose CMV or Fred Olsen? If you really want to sai from a regional port, rather than Southampton, P&O isn’t going to help you. On a tight budget, CMV is probably an good value way to get away for a short break. Conversely, Fred Olsen seems to be the most expensive of the three and I have no idea how they justify that.